Thursday, October 17, 2013

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New animated gifs are added every monday evening.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


In my last post I wrote about ghost projection and mentioned the great fascination at the turn of the 19th century with a particular type of magic lantern entertainment that called up apparitions. In England, the shows were called Phantasmagoria and in France Fantasmagorie. I was incredibly lucky to recently find this fabulous small broadside (6” x 9”) c.1799 advertising Étienne-Gaspard Robertson’s Fantasmagorie show held in the Convent des Capucines. Robertson’s shows were a great success, starting with his first show in Paris in 1798. At the end of 1798 he moved to more spacious and atmospheric quarters in the Convent. He gave his first show there on January 3,1799 and continued at that location until 1803.
The broadside cleverly contains the visual power of a striking wood engraving and bold
text proclaiming a show that will produce Apparitions, Specters of Phantoms and Ghosts. What’s more, the assembled patrons will witness, as the broadside proclaims, “experiments with the new fluid know by the name of Galvinism whose application gives temporary movement to bodies whose life has departed.” (This was based on the work of the Italian physician, Luigi Galvani who applied electrical current to frog’s legs, which seemed to stir life in dead frog).
Robertson’s patrons entered the convent and moved through rooms where they might see the experiment in Galvinism, peepshows and optical illusions before being seated in a darkened room. They must have been startled when images appeared as from nowhere onto the screen. Often these figures would not only get larger but they would seem to leave the screen. The lanternist and lantern were hidden from view behind the screen. The lanternist could make the image increase in size by moving the lantern, which was on rails, further back from the screen. Music added to the effect and Robertson employed the Franklin Harmonica. Benjamin Franklin invented a form of the glass harmonica, a musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls of various sizes and musical tones are made by means of friction. The glass harmonica produces an eerie piercing sound which you can feel in your chest and must have helped create just the right atmosphere for the spectral images appearing on the screen.

For more information on the history of the Fantasmagorie read Laurent Mannoni’s excellent book: The Great Art Of Light and Shadow 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ghost Projection

A year ago I made a post about Pepper’s Ghost.  It began with, “Who has not been scared and at the same time excited by a ghost story or the inexplicable appearance of an apparition. Fascination with ghosts and the afterworld have gripped audiences for centuries. Our appetite for such titillation seems insatiable. Ghost shows are nothing new. Writers, magicians, and lanternists have long used the popular fascination with ghosts and apparitions for their advantage. From its earliest inception the magic lantern has employed ghost figures to frighten and to entertain audiences. Some of the very earliest magic lantern images in the last part of the 17th century were of ghosts and demons.  Calling forth such figures reached a new height in the late 1700s and early 1800s largely due to two showmen and their shows. The Fantasmagorie shows, popularized by Belgian showman Éttiene-Gaspard Robertson  and the Phantasmagoria shows of magician Paul de Philipsthal, called forth apparitions onto the screen. Their shows ingeniously employed rear projection. The lanternist was hidden from the audience behind the screen. In a darkened room the images would appear on the screen as if from nowhere. By moving the lantern, the figure could be made smaller or larger such that the ghosts would appear and then menacingly approach the audience.”   

A recent purchase of the book Aufschlüsse zur Magie aus geprüften Erfahrungen über verborgene philosophische Wissenschaften und verdeckte Geheimnisse der Natur (1790) by the German writer Karl von Eckartshausen has brought me back to the idea of the appearance of phantoms and ghosts. Eckartshausen wrote about a wide range of topics including alchemy, mysticism, and magic. In this book he describes how to create a ghost illusion and the first print illustrates the ghost figure hovering over a pedestal. The second illustrates how Eckartshausen employed a hidden magic lantern to project an image off a mirror to create the effect.
I can’t resist including two more engravings from Eckharsthausen’s book although they are not of a ghost projection, but rather of what must have been a remarkable trick. Eckhartshausen would, he states, take someone for an evening stroll and at some point would turn toward a wall and mysteriously and probably frighteningly, a figure would appear on the wall.  The print illustrates the trick at the moment of the projection. The other engraving shows the lantern that was employed and was hidden under his coat. You can see the ingenious plunger used to extinguish the light and the carrying stick used to light the lantern. If it actually worked it must have been wonderful.

 Now back to the tale of ghost projection. Éttiene-Gaspard Robertson certainly was aware of the work of Eckartshausen and created his own ghost effects. The image below is the frontispiece from Robertson’s Mémoires Récréatifs, Scientifiques Et Anecdotiques (1831) and shows the impact of the appearance of apparitions on an audience.  The second illustration from a book published in 1811 shows a ghost projection with the lanternist hidden behind the screen.

For at least a half-century following the Robertson’s first shows the Phantasmagoria was a big part of lantern entertainment. The two broadsides, one for a German shows, another for a Russian show illustrate the spread of these entertainments.

Those wanting to learn more about ghost shows and Phantasmagoria entertainment should read Mervyn Heard’s book Phantasmagoria, The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern.

I have put a number of prints and broadsides relating to the Phantasmagoria on my web site.